Senate committee tables bills regulating limousines, government procurement


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ST. CROIX - The Senate Government Services and Housing Committee met in Frederiksted on Tuesday and after a full day of discussions, held the bills in committee that would regulate limousines in the territory and would put restrictions on government procurement.

The first bill, sponsored by Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, would require that the territory, through the Property and Procurement Department, obtain services, materials, supplies, equipment, parts and other operating tools for the government locally unless the local price is 30 percent or higher than from sources outside of the territory.

Rivera-O'Reilly said the bill first was proposed in the 29th Legislature but never made it out of committee.

Now that the bill has resurfaced, there seems to be a lack of support for it because none of the invited testifiers showed up to the meeting, she said.

Rivera-O'Reilly said the measure is needed to encourage the government to buy local and support the small businesses and the local economy.

Property and Procurement Commissioner Lynn Millin-Maduro did not attend the meeting but sent a letter saying the proposed legislation is over-burdensome and creates an atmosphere of preferential treatment that is inconsistent with the transparent and open procurement process. The proposed legislation goes against the generally accepted practice of best value and throws out the procurement principal for accepting the lowest bidder, she said.

"While I understand the intent of the bill is to circulate and create more business opportunities within the territory, the bill removes the fairness and equity that an open and transparent procurement process provides," she wrote.

Millin-Maduro said the bill also will be inapplicable to any procurement that involves federal funding because geographical preferences can not be used to make a federally funded award.

The presidents of the Chambers of Commerce for St. Croix and St. Thomas also were invited to testify but did not attend.

Upon questioning by Sen. Terrence Nelson, legal counsel Ernest Morris said the proposed legislation may be deemed unconstitutional and may raise some challenges.

Rivera-O'Reilly said that was not a reason not to go forward with the legislation, noting that the bill was drafted by legal counsel and they did not alert her of the concerns.

"If we temper our actions based on what could be unconstitutional, we probably would not do much," she said. "We are a unique community placed in the middle of the ocean and can not go from state to state for work and goods, so if it was challenged, I would make that argument."

Also during Tuesday's committee meeting, the senators considered a bill to remove the exclusion granted to limousines from complying with the provisions of franchise agreements at airports and ports and removing the provision that exempts limousines from the jurisdiction of the V.I. Taxicab Commission.

Sen. Donald Cole, who sponsored the bill, said the proposed legislation would repeal the law that brought about the exemptions. There have been a number of complaints, primarily on St. Thomas, about limousine drivers who violate general rules, and some taxi operators that have been operating their vehicles as limousines, he said.

Judith Wheatley, executive director of the V.I. Taxicab Commission; Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Wayne Biggs; Bureau of Motor Vehicles Director Jerris Browne; taxi driver Kelvin Dennie; and limousine operator Zefo Thomas were among the testifiers on the bill. All agreed that limousine services need regulations, but that the problems that have been brought up and the violation of taxi and limousine regulations do not occur on St. Croix.

Wheatley and Dennie, who have found themselves on opposing sides of issues numerous times in the past, both agreed that it is unfair to taxi drivers that they have to pay for their medallions, follow the regulations of the commission, pay their fees and follow limiting guidelines while they must compete against taxi drivers who register their vehicles as limousines and operate them as taxis.

Thomas said the biggest difference between limousines and taxis is the size and comfort of a limousine and the on-demand availability.

Senators voted to hold both bills in committee, saying they needed to have more discussion and additional testimony. They said they also have specific questions for Millin-Maduro regarding the procurement bill.

The next committee hearing is scheduled for Dec. 16 on St. Thomas.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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